Eagle Owl Pellet Analysis – RSPB North Pennine Reserve

Mark Avery has this morning (23 October) published on his blog a complete analysis of 23 eagle owl pellets taken from a nest on the RSPB’s reserve in the Pennines, the one where the last successful breeding attempt by a pair of hen harriers occurred in 2006, at which point they became a non breeding species following extensive illegal persecution.

The information gleaned from this research supports what was found after two dozen additional pellets collected from two Lancashire nesting sites in the Forest of Bowland were also analysed this year providing further evidence that the main prey item being predated by each of the three breeding pairs in northern England as predicted was rabbit (a non native species).. One comment on Mark’s blog sums up the situation very well, “It would seem that on the whole the likely ecological impact of the Eagle Owl may not be a major problem (unless you are a rabbit). The red grouse take might also be a bit tricky. I guess it also depends on the potential for the owls to increase their number and at what rate. Experience on the continent might help in that direction.”

Pellet analysis from the pair of eagle owls nesting at one of the RSPB’s nature reserves. Mark Avery asked the question – So what do ‘our’ eagle owls eat?

23 pellets were analysed and 19 (83%) contained mammal remains, including rabbits (14), field vole (7), brown rat (1) and stoat (1).  Seven pellets (30%) contained bird remains (red grouse 3+).  The mass of loose remains included  3+ rabbits, 1 field vole skull, 2 bird skulls (red grouse), 1 birds leg (pheasant) and  feathers (many red grouse). Of course the assumption that there were many red grouse feathers may be inaccurate; the feathers collected may of course be from one red grouse, it depends on how these feathers were scattered.

Mark Avery goes on to say that this year’s results are similar to those of last year.  As expected, these birds are mostly eating rabbits with a few game birds thrown in.  Interesting that a stoat was taken. We feel that it was also significant that in the Pennine pellet analysis there was no mention of hedgehog being predated, whereas in Lancashire the remains of large numbers of eaten hedgehog were recovered at one of the nesting sites. This may have something to do with the fact that throughout the north Pennine reserve badgers, the main predator of hedgehog are common, but in the Forest of Bowland badgers are often found dead after being illegally snared to protect game stocks.  

We feel it is important to add to what Mark Avery has stated by highlighting additional important detail which he omitted to include on his blog. This year the RSPB’s north Pennine reserve witnessed the best season for nesting short-eared owls with up to 9 breeding pairs. Kestrels in the region also had one of their best breeding seasons for a number of years. Perhaps most significantly of all, a pair of merlin successfully reared four young together with a pair of buzzards which raised two chicks; were all recorded as breeding in the same territory as the pair of eagle owls this year. I suppose one could play devils advocate and ask why, if all these raptors are nesting successfully on the reserve why are there no harriers? Silly question really!

We must also point out that in the last winter of 2009/2010 the RSPB’s reserve in Cumbria was the only site in the Pennines that experienced a dramatic increase in numbers of black cock, while in the rest of the Pennines the population collapsed by 2/3. Following a count of black cock numbers on the reserve last winter no less than 38 cocks and 57 hens were recorded. Out of interest we would also mention that a local photographer out walking in the snow this spring on the reserve managed to secure a fantastic image of a black cock and short-eared owl perched just a few feet apart on a stone wall.

10 comments to Eagle Owl Pellet Analysis – RSPB North Pennine Reserve

  • Harrier Man

    Plenty more reserves like Geltsdale for the north pennines would go long way in recovery of the hen harrier and other raptors.

    • Admin

      Admin has been sent a copy of this comment made recently on a Cumbrian Natural History blog. As the comment refers to Raptor Politics as the extremely useful site, one of our many Cumbrian readers has asked RP to post the comment on his behalf- which of course we are please to do.

      An extremely useful site – I think we all need to get au fait with what’s going on in the Cumbrian countryside: as you may know, the shooters are really consolidating their grip on the countryside, with all that means for ‘legal’ elimination of as many potential predators as they can achieve, and illegal where necessary to finish the job -raptors/owls.

      I may have walked over more grouse moors in recent years than anyone here, and it is very depressing to see the arrays of traps strung out all across the moors. There must be thousands. And don’t get me into rant mode about the Pests From Hell – pheasants.

      Simply horrible – the cult of the gun. Boneheaded.

      From the Cumbrian Yahoo group

  • skydancer

    I can confirm the area surrounding and including the RSPB’s Pennine reserve is a wonderful place with all those raptors and Black Grouse breeding succesfully to admire, pity the keepers from next door will not allow any Harriers to return here. Oh yes, sadly I have just learned this week that a nearby location rich in wildlife will shorly be operated as a commercial shoot for the first time in 40 years.

  • Yesterday at our IOS meeting Mark Avery came to talk to us, the talk was enjoyed by all and ,of course, as Mark totally expected, the Eagle Owl situation was discussed at length, from the information gained it would appear that no cull will go ahead, it is not necessary, but we all knew that when this dreadful situation reared it’s ugly head again didn’t we.
    I just wish I could trust these people, I really want to but something is holding me back, sadly these organisations and the politicians will tell you what they want you to hear if it works in their favour.
    I like Mark Avery, I hope what he told us yesterday is right but I will reserve my judgement until I know that the Eagle Owls are truly safe, or as safe as any bird of prey will ever be in this country.

  • John Miles

    No one can trust this government. With shooting estates reporting £200 million pounds worth of damage caused by rabbits in the UK, how can they destroy eagle owls, a bird that helps remove the cause of damage? Ask David Kelly!!

    • Jim

      You will all like this story, if it was not so serious you would all be excused for falling about the floor laughing…. This weekend I over heard some idiot claiming the 3 Bowland owlets which hatched in the second nest, growing to nearly 3 weeks old at which point they were rung had been reared in captivity.

      From what I heard the 3 chicks at some stage had then been transported and planted in a man made nesting scrape in the middle of a grouse moor on the united Utilities estate in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland. Someone had been very meticulous, thinking of every thing of course, they had even planted dozens of dead prey items and owl pellets all over the place. Where do these ignorant people get their information from, because frankly they haven’t a clue and don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t know who is the the biggest fool, the gullible individual who passed on the story he had been told, or the clown without a brain who seemingly resides in a fantasy world.

      First of all when the nest was located it already contained 3 eggs which were all being incubated; all 3 eggs hatched, then after naturally developing to an age of 3 weeks old they were each rung. Is the person who made up this ridiculous cock and bull story saying the eggs and chicks in the nest all developed with the aid of divine intervention with no assistance from their parents?

      Just in case I have not convinced the person who thought up this fantasy, the police in the guise of The Wildlife Crime Officer for Lancashire observed one of the adult eagle owls servicing the nest after the chicks had been rung, or was he mistaken, perhaps he had seen the Ark Angel Gabriel near the nest that evening? There must be some very sick individuals up there in Lancashire??

  • paul williams

    JIM,who was the idiot who made up this story? I can challenge his account with hard evidence. Let him reveal himself…I HAVE.

  • paul williams

    JIM, Did the person you over heard have 2 men in white coats with him ???

  • Neil

    Why are the RSPB taking the lead on this, what gives them the right?

    C’mon Tony Warburton and co, surely us Owl specialists can take on a complete study of the Eagle Owls in Britain, just like we took the lead on Barn Owls and the plight of….

  • Neil,

    Sorry, I have only just noticed your post. The short answer is that we have been carrying out this study since 1984 – check out my report on the World Owl Trust website (www.owls.org) and click on ‘World Owl Trust in Action’/Reports/Eagle Owls in Britain: Native or Aliens? The trouble is, the ‘anti’s refuse to accept our findings! All we can do is persevere and continue to study and record the facts until they are forced to open their closed minds.